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Plot thickens after Marine Corps commandant's interview with NPR

CMC refutes 3-star's claim about sniper scandal. Whose account is correct?

Feb. 20, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Pentagon
Commandant Gen. Jim Amos (Rob Curtis / Staff)
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Lt. Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser (Staff)

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Jim Amos is refuting the claim, made under oath by a fellow general, that he wanted troops “crushed” for making an inappropriate video in Afghanistan. But questions remain as to which general is correct in his recollection of events, and to what extent the service’s senior officer was involved in the disciplinary and administrative action ultimately taken against these men.

Amos has been under fire for months, fallout from the service’s clumsy handling of several legal cases stemming from the video, which shows four Marine scout snipers urinating on dead insurgents, and an explosive whistle-blower complaint to the Pentagon inspector general alleging Amos and others close to him abused their authority in the process. The controversy took a dramatic turn in July, when Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, whom Amos put in charge of the urination cases before quietly replacing him a few weeks later, recounted in sworn testimony how he and the commandant disagreed over how punishment should be meted out.

In an interview that aired Monday on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” Amos was asked about these allegations by co-host Renee Montagne. “I have never, ever said I wanted them crushed or kicked out,” he responded. “I don’t recall at all saying that.” Without offering specifics of the two generals’ discussion, Amos conceded that after reflecting on his remarks to Waldhauser, he felt he’d made a mistake and moved immediately to eliminate any bearing the commandant’s comments may have had on the urination cases. “And then I stayed out of it completely,” Amos told NPR.

The comments mark the first time Amos has publicly addressed the issue. Neither he nor Waldhauser would answer follow-up questions from Marine Corps Times. Lt. Col. David Nevers, a spokesman for Amos, said he is doubtful the commandant “has any immediate plans to expand on his remarks to NPR” while Waldhauser’s spokesman, Air Force Col. Edward Thomas Jr., said “it would be inappropriate for him to discuss” the matter because there is an ongoing inspector general investigation.”

Another important matter also remains unresolved: Amos’ claim he “stayed out of it completely” once oversight of the cases was taken away from Waldhauser on Feb. 10, 2012. Subsequent communication exchanged between Amos and other senior leaders suggests otherwise.

Reached for comment, a spokesman Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s office provided the following statement: “We do not feel compelled to speak to his remarks,” said Carl Woog, “but that does not diminish the fact that Secretary Hagel has complete faith and confidence in General Amos and his leadership as the commandant of the Marine Corps.”

The paper trail

The inspector general inquiry Thomas referenced stems from a complaint made to the Pentagon last year by attorney John Dowd, whose client, Capt. James Clement, had faced court-martial proceedings in connection with the urination video before the Marine Corps abruptly dropped its criminal charges against him and pursued administrative punishment instead. Dowd’s complaint, a copy of which was obtained by Marine Corps Times as part of an ongoing investigation into the allegations surrounding Amos, includes Waldhauser’s sworn statement and a seven-page memorandum to Amos containing “an update and recommendation as to the way-ahead” in the urination cases.

Dated May 31, 2012, nearly four months after Waldhauser was replaced, the memo was sent to Amos from then-Lt. Gen. John Paxton, who was serving as commanding general of II Marine Expeditionary Force, the scout snipers’ parent command. The recommendations, Paxton wrote, were based on “our post EOS discussions” about three weeks prior, a reference to the most recent executive offsite meeting of the Corps’ general officers. The memo included a “Summary of CMC Action,” referring to the commandant of the Marine Corps, and detailed how each case would be handled. It left room for Amos to approve or disapprove, and to leave comments about each recommendation.

Days later, in an email to Paxton and others, Maj. Gen. Vaughn Ary, the commandant’s top uniformed attorney, explained that Amos did not want to make himself part of the decision-making process. Amos wanted the necessary actions to be taken care of by Paxton and Lt. Gen. Richard Mills, who replaced Waldhauser, according to Ary’s email. Nevertheless, a version of Paxton’s memo was signed by the commandant and sent back to his general officers. Paxton is now the service’s four-star assistant commandant.

Later, in August 2012, Amos emailed Mills to convey displeasure with the general’s intended approach to notifying the media about three cases that had been disposed of via nonjudicial punishment. “Rich,” Amos wrote, “if this is our official press release, then I don’t like it at all. We routinely publish NJPs in base newspapers to include specific charges, the names, and the punishments allotted. This smacks of us not doing anything punitively — ie, “an administrative procedure” — and looks like we are trying to hide evidence. I want somebody to come back to me this afternoon to talk about this.”

Within an hour, Mills’ chief of staff, Col. Gregg Brinegar, emailed his boss indicating he’d been in touch with Amos’ top military assistant at the time, Col. James Bierman. Bierman made it clear “CMC is not happy with the press release and is really adamant about laying out the punishment in exact terms,” Brinegar’s email states. “... CMC has directed that Col. Bierman speak to you directly. ... I’ve spoken to Col. Bierman about the punishment that was provided to each of three NCOs this morning and I do not believe this to be a case where CMC is unhappy about the punishment that was administered.”

Such high-level communication factored heavily in Dowd’s defense of Clement, who in September learned that the three senior officers who oversaw his administrative hearing determined he failed to supervise those who made the urination video and recommended he be involuntarily discharged from the service as a result. Dowd also leveraged a whistle-blower complaint made by one of Mills’ legal advisers at the time, Maj. James Weirick, who objected to what he considered the heavy-handed and inappropriate involvement by several people close to Amos.

Weirick claimed there was a calculated effort within Marine Corps headquarters to prevent defense attorneys from accessing evidence, including what are believed to be sensitive emails written by Robert Hogue, the commandant’s top civilian legal adviser. In March of 2012, shortly after Waldhauser was replaced by Mills, Hogue met with Weirick’s boss at the time, then-Lt. Col. Jesse Gruter. In an email exchange between Gruter, Weirick and several other Marine attorneys, Weirick explained that Hogue had made clear “all military justice matters would flow through him to and from CMC.”

Gruter expanded on this, noting that Hogue described his role as being involved “in all those things he is hired to do and all those things he is directed to do by the CMC.” And all matters related to the urination video, Gruter’s email indicates, “fell into the latter category.”

'Crushed'

Waldhauser provided his statement to Dowd and another defense attorney, Guy Womack, whose client, retired Cpl. Rob Richards, is one of the four Marines in the urination video. In his statement, Waldhauser said that, during their meeting, Amos told him he wanted the offenders “crushed” and “discharged from the Marine Corps when this was all over.” When Waldhauser pushed back, according to his sworn statement, Amos said he could remove Waldhauser from the case. Hours later, Waldhauser said, he was notified by telephone that he had been removed from the cases.

Womack told Marine Corps Times that he was only a few feet away when Waldhauser gave his statement at the Washington Navy Yard. The general later approved and signed a written copy of his remarks. “General Waldhauser was very clear,” Womack said. “He said the exact words the commandant used: ‘crushed.’ ... It disappoints me that the commandant, who rightfully is calling for a reawakening of our Corps and the ethics within our leadership, would violate his own policy and say these things he must have known were untrue.”

Montagne, the NPR host, asked Amos whether Waldhauser may have gotten the impression he was removed for questioning the commandant. “I’ve kept my mouth shut for a year and a half, and I think that’s absolutely specious,” Amos replied. “I mean, I can’t speak for him, but I can speak for myself. ... Certainly none of them have been crushed or thrown out of the Marine Corps. And that’s an important point.” All the Marines embroiled in the urination scandal were treated justly, Amos said, with some accepting nonjudicial punishment and others receiving a demotion in rank at court proceedings.

Of the eight Marines punished in relation to the scandal, only Clement faces the prospect of involuntary separation. He’s appealing that decision. Yet others say their careers were indeed destroyed, even if they weren’t drummed out. “There was no feasible way to stay in or be promoted,” said one of the scout snipers, who asked that he not be identified because he is in the process of drafting an appeal. “The only thing that stopped the judge from giving me a punitive discharge was my combat record.”

Richards, the sniper team leader, was a sergeant when the video was made. He secured a medical retirement after pleading guilty at a summary court-martial in August. He had been cleared for medical retirement with 100 percent disability since 2012, the result of severe injuries sustained in an IED attack during a 2010 deployment to Afghanistan. Richards declined to discuss Amos’ recent comments, but his wife, Raechel, provided a statement indicating her family is working slowly to put the ordeal behind them.

“When Rob was wounded in 2010, we thought it would be the most difficult time in our lives, but as hard as it may be to believe, the betrayal felt after the wake of this lengthy and draining trial has been nothing short of crushing,” Raechel Richards said. “[Amos] has essentially called General Waldhauser a liar in reference to undue command influence, but there was no advantage to Waldhauser in lying about the conversation between the two. The only advantage to be gained by lying about their conversation would be to Amos.”

The commandant’s decision to reassign the urination cases was not explained publicly before Waldhauser’s sworn statement emerged last summer. Two months prior, a source within the commandant’s office told Marine Corps Times that Waldhauser was removed because his future role as the defense secretary’s top military adviser was of supreme importance and he needed time to prepare. That explanation proved untrue.

Waldhauser now serves with the Joint Staff at the Pentagon as the director of operations, plans and joint force development. He is overseeing an ethics review, begun in 2012 and spearheaded by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, which is aimed at reinforcing the professional ethical behavior of senior officers.

The accounts of Amos and Waldhauser do converge at one point: how Amos explained his decision to remove the three-star as oversight authority for the sniper cases. In his sworn statement, Waldhauser said Amos told him via video conference days after the meeting that Amos had crossed a line in how he discussed the cases and was fixing that error by removing Waldhauser’s purview over their disposition. “In my view, the commandant had acknowledged he made a mistake and this was his way of addressing it moving forward,” Waldhauser said. “... He told me that if ever asked about the incident, I should simply tell the truth.”

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